St. Louis Rams 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Rams have been a mediocre team over the past decade or so, not winning more than 8 games in 11 straight seasons, but winning between 6 and 8 games in 7 of those 11 seasons. They’ve never been very good, but they haven’t been bad either, seemingly always a piece away. After a 2-14 2009 season, the Rams used the 1st overall pick in 2010 on Sam Bradford, but the results have of the Sam Bradford era never really showed up in the win column, as the Rams won 6 or 7 games in 4 of 5 seasons, but never any more than that.

The Rams, at least in my opinion, have their most hope in years going into this season though. The Rams were mediocre in 2014 again, going 6-10 and finishing 22nd in rate of moving the chains differential. However, their problems were primarily on the offensive side of the ball, where they ranked 25th in rate of moving the chains. Their defense, on the other hand, ranked 5th in opponent rate of moving the chains differential. The defense should continue to be good in 2015 and the offense has a real chance to take a leap forward this season.

The biggest reason for that is they should have noticeably better quarterback play this season. The Rams’ 2014 season took a big hit before it even started as Sam Bradford tore his ACL, leaving the veteran Shaun Hill (who hadn’t played regularly since 2010) and Austin Davis, n 2012 undrafted free agent, to split starts for the Rams last season. They combined to complete 63.5% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions and graded out 26th and 29th respectively among 39 eligible quarterbacks.

Sam Bradford won’t be back in St. Louis this season, as the Rams traded him to Philadelphia for quarterback Nick Foles, improving their draft position in the process, moving up from the 5th round to the 4th round in 2015 and adding a 2nd round pick in 2016. It was a smart move by the Rams as they not only improved their draft position, but also upgraded the quarterback position, sending off a quarterback who has missed 31 games in 5 seasons, including the last 25 straight with a twice torn ACL, and who has only completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions in his career.

Foles will be the new quarterback and he’s completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.56 YPA, 46 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions since the Eagles drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012. Foles is a one year wonder who had by far the best season of his career in 2013, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. As good as his numbers looked that season, he only ranked 17th among quarterbacks, suggesting much of his production was a result of the system and offensive supporting talent. In his other 2 seasons, he’s graded out below average, 31st out of 38 eligible in 2012 and 25th out of 39 eligible in 2014. In Philadelphia, he always had a strong supporting cast offensively and a good offensive system, especially over the past 2 seasons with Chip Kelly. Life won’t be as easy for him in St. Louis.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The Rams used the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on some offensive supporting cast help for Foles, as many expected them to. However, it wasn’t the position many expected. Instead of using the pick on a wide receiver like Devante Parker or an offensive lineman like Andrus Peat, the Rams opted for running back Todd Gurley. It was a weird move because the offensive line and wide receiver positions were both big needs, while Tre Mason did a solid job at running back as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and seemed worthy as being the lead back in 2015. Gurley is also likely to miss the first month of the season after tearing his ACL last fall at the University of Georgia. The Rams are banking on Gurley, who some called the next Adrian Peterson, living up to his potential.

As a rookie, he’s unlikely to make much of an impact. Even once he’s able to return from his ACL tear, it would be unfair to expect him to be anything close to his potential, especially since he’ll be a rookie. He’s unlikely to have his breakout year until 2016 or beyond. Mason will be the lead back in Gurley’s absence and the primary backup upon his return. As a rookie, he rushed for 765 yards and 4 touchdowns on 179 carries (4.27 YPC) and added 16 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown. Benny Cunningham will be the #3 back, the #2 back in Gurley’s absence. He’s a 2012 undrafted free agent who has rushed for 507 yards and 4 touchdowns on 113 carries, a solid 4.49 YPC. The Rams were pretty set at running back going into the draft so they have to hope that Gurley can become a transcendent player.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Rams have problems on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. Those two units certainly are not what Foles was used to in Philadelphia. The Rams’ offensive line finished 27th in team pass blocking grade and 23rd in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season. The Rams lost 4 players who combined for 52 starts on the offensive line in 2014 this off-season, Jake Long (7 starts), Scott Wells (16 starts), Davin Joseph (13 starts), and Joe Barksdale (16 starts). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Wells was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked center last season and Joseph finished 75th out of 78 eligible guards. However, Barksdale was decent last season, as was Long, before an ACL tear that put his career in jeopardy. Besides, the players the Rams brought in to replace those players aren’t necessarily upgrades.

Greg Robinson remains from last season and he’ll move over to Long’s old spot at left tackle, which was the ultimate plan when the Rams drafted him 2nd overall in 2014. Robinson had a brutal rookie year though, grading out below average in 3 early season starts at guard and then really struggling in the final 9 games of the season at left tackle, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible on just 559 snaps. From week 9 on at left tackle, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked offensive tackle. Only going into his age 23 season, the Rams are hoping that Robinson turns it around in a hurry on the blindside.

Rodger Saffold returns at left guard, where he made 12 starts last season (3 at right guard and 1 at left tackle). He graded out just below average on the first year of a 5-year, 31.347 million dollar deal. Saffold is versatile, making starts at left tackle (37 starts), right tackle (2 starts), left guard (12 starts), and right guard (9 starts) in 5 years in the league, since getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. However, he’s graded out below average in 2 of 5 seasons and has missed 17 games in 5 seasons with injury. Saffold made all 16 starts in 2014 for the first time since his rookie year and, with the amount of money they gave committed to him long-term, the Rams are hoping that becomes a trend. Even if it does, he’s unlikely to quite live up to his contract.

Saffold is the only experienced projected starter on the St. Louis offensive line this season, other than maybe Robinson, depending on how you define experienced. At center, right guard, and right tackle, the Rams will have 3 new starters and none of their options are proven. 2nd round rookie Rob Havenstein is expected to start at right tackle. Another rookie could be starting at right guard, either 3rd round pick Jaron Brown or 4th round rookie Andrew Donnal.

Also in the mix at right guard are Brandon Washington, a 2012 6th round pick who has played 17 career snaps, and Barrett Jones, a 2013 4th round pick who has played 23 career snaps. Jones will also compete at center with Tim Barnes, a 2011 undrafted free agent with 282 career snaps. The most likely lineup will have Jones at center, Brown at right guard, and Havenstein at right tackle, but whatever the lineup is, it won’t be what Foles was used to in Philadelphia. It also won’t help their running game much in Gurley’s rookie year. It’s one of the worst offensive lines in football.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

Things are better in the receiving corps, but there are still problems. Kenny Britt led the team with 748 receiving yards, which sadly were the most by a Rams receiver since 2008. Kenny Britt has definitely had an interesting career trajectory, for better or worse. The 2009 1st round pick looked on his way to a promising career in 2010 and 2011. After averaging 1.86 yards per route run as a rookie in 2009, Britt averaged an absurd 3.07 yards per route run in 2010 and 2011, catching a combined 59 passes for 1064 yards and 12 touchdowns on a combined 347 routes run. However, a good as he was in 2010 and 2011, he only played a combined 15 games thanks to multiple injuries, including a torn ACL that derailed his career big in a big way.

Upon his return from that torn ACL in 2012, he averaged just 1.49 yards per route run in 14 games, after starting the season with a 1 game suspension as a result of a checkered off-the-field history that includes 9 arrests. He was noticeably slowed by surgeries to both of his knees. In 2013, his final year in Tennessee, he was a train wreck. Britt was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked wide receiver, despite playing just 305 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He only caught a third of his 33 targets, with 11 catches for 96 yards and he dropped 7 passes. He averaged just 0.48 yards per route run on 201 routes run. He was the definition of awful and also got into it with his coaches.

That’s why he had to settle for a minimum deal in free agency last season, rejoining ex-head coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, where he was able to bounce back. He caught 48 of 81 targets (59.3%) for 748 yards and 3 touchdowns on 468 routes run, an average of 1.60 yards per route run. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked wide receiver, above average. It’s hard to trust Britt, but he should be able to remain a solid receiver this season. He’ll never be the receiver he looked on to his way becoming early in his career, but, as long as he stays out of trouble, he should be an asset in a weak receiving corps. The Rams re-signed him to a 2-year, 9.15 million dollar deal worth up to 14 million in incentives this off-season.

Brian Quick was on his way to a solid season as well, catching 24 passes for 365 yards and 3 touchdowns during the first 6 games of the season, before going down for the year week 8, needing shoulder surgery. The 2012 2nd round pick should be a starter again in 2015 in a make or break 4th year in the league and also a contract year. With Foles coming in, Quick could put up solid numbers if he stays healthy, as could Kenny Britt, but, like Britt, he’s not a #1 caliber receiver, something they could have found at #10 overall.

The Rams drafted Tavon Austin 8th overall in 2013 to be the #1 receiver, but he’s really disappointed thus far in 2 years in the league. As a rookie in 2013, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade on 434 snaps and then 100th out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade on 552 snaps in 2014. He’s caught just 71 passes for 660 yards and 4 touchdowns in 28 career games. He does add value on the ground, grading out above average in that aspect in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, rushing for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns on 45 career attempts. He also adds value on special teams. But he hasn’t nearly been worth the 8th overall pick and, while it’s too early to declare him a bust, his career seems to be heads in that direction unless he can establish himself as a receiver. His best shot of doing that would be on the slot.

Even on the slot, I’m not so sure that Austin can hold off Stedman Bailey for the #3 job this off-season. Bailey, a 2013 3rd round pick, has graded out above average in each of the two seasons he’s been in the league, including on 420 snaps last season. He caught 30 passes for 435 yards and a touchdown in 14 games, the majority of which came after Quick got hurt. Austin’s teammate at West Virginia, Bailey doesn’t have Austin’s blazing speed and he’s not big either at 5-10 193, but he’s at least shown the requisite strength to play on offense in the NFL, something that’s eluded the 5-8 174 pound Austin thus far in his career. Realistically, I think they give Austin one more shot and Bailey starts the season backing up all 3 receiver spots.

The Rams will also use a fair amount of two-tight end sets again this season, after Jared Cook played 706 and Lance Kendricks played 613 last season. Kendricks is the #2 tight end, but he got paid pretty well this off-season, re-signing on a 4-year, 18.5 million dollar deal. Considering he played 588 snaps in 2013 (33rd among tight ends) and 613 snaps in 2014 (27th among tight ends) as the “#2” tight end, the money makes some sense, but the problem is he’s a marginal talent, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2011.

Jared Cook will return as the starting tight end, going into the 3rd year of a 5-year, 35.11 million dollar deal. Cook was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked tight end last season, a career best, but he’s never been bad either, always grading out above average, average, or slightly below average throughout his 6-year NFL career. After posting 51/657/5 and 52/634/3 slash lines throughout his first 2 seasons in St. Louis, despite shoddy quarterback play, Cook stands to see a boost in production with Foles coming in, which should be the case throughout the offense. The problem is the offensive supporting cast is still really lacking around Foles. While Cook is a solid player, if he’s arguably your best offensive player, it’s not a good offense. If the Rams are going to make the playoffs this season, their defense is going to have to come up big once again.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Rams went from 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 to 5th in 2014, a big part of the reason why there’s a ton of hope for them in 2015. It’s not fair to suggest any one player or change was responsible for the Rams’ improved defense, but one player who had a huge impact was rookie Aaron Donald, the 14th overall pick and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year. I thought Khalil Mack should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year, but I love Mack and Donald is only slightly behind him in my book. Like Mack, he ranked #1 at his position on Pro Football Focus, doing so at defensive tackle. Reminiscent of a pre-injury Geno Atkins, Donald dropped to the 14th overall pick only because of his height at 6-1 288. That hasn’t been an issue. He’s got a great future.

The Rams were without highly paid defensive end Chris Long for much of last season as he missed 10 games with injury. Long not only missed significant time with injury, but he wasn’t himself even when on the field for most of the season, as the injury happened 31 snaps into Long’s season. In the final 5 games of the season, after Long’s return, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end from week 13 through week 17. Only going into his age 30 season, Long should bounce back to form, especially since he had never missed a game with injury in 6 seasons prior to last season.

However, it’s important to note that the form he should bounce back to is not quite the form that the 43 sacks he had from 2010-2013 would suggest. While Long is a feared pass rusher, grading out 7th, 4th, 7th, and 7th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010-2013 respectively, he’s never graded out above average against the run, including a 3-year stretch from 2010-2012 where he was in the bottom-3 among 4-3 defensive ends against the run in every season. Long actually graded out below average in his last healthy season in 2013. He should be a situational player at this point in his career and could easily be going into his final season in St. Louis, owed an 11.75 million non-guaranteed in 2016.

In his absence, William Hayes was actually an upgrade because he’s more of a complete player, grading out above average as a pass rusher and a run stopper and finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Hayes isn’t a one year wonder either, grading out above average in 5 of 7 pro seasons, including three straight. Prior to last season, Hayes was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive and 8th ranked 4-3 defensive end on 378 and 354 snaps respectively and in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He should continue to see more snaps in 2015, especially in obvious running situations and base packages, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run last season.

Robert Quinn will be the other starter on the outside of the Rams’ 4-man defensive line. Quinn, a 2011 1st round pick, lived up to his massive potential in 2013. After grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, the 2011 14th overall pick had the best defensive season in the NFL in 2013, aside from maybe JJ Watt. Quinn graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end by a wide margin, thanks in large part to his 19 sacks and 21 hits.

He couldn’t repeat it in 2014, but few can and, after grading out 10th at his position last season, it’s now clear that Quinn is not a one-year wonder. Only going into his age 25 season, Quinn is one of the best defensive players in the NFL and him alongside Aaron Donald is even deadlier. The other good news about Long returning is that Eugene Sims won’t play a prominent role again this season, after grading well out below average in each of his first 5 seasons in the NFL, since the Rams took him in the 6th round in 2010. He’ll be the 4th defensive end at best this season. The Rams go legitimately 3-deep at defensive end, more so than any other team in the league.

The same can basically be said about the Rams’ defensive tackles. I already mentioned Donald’s dominant rookie year. He’ll play alongside a duo of Michael Brockers and free agent signing Nick Fairley. Brockers was a 1st round pick in 2012 and made 16 starts for the Rams last season. He hasn’t developed as a pass rusher the way the Rams would have liked, but the 6-5 322 pounder has graded out above average against the run in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league. That includes a 2014 season where he graded out above average for the first time in his career.

Brockers will continue to start for the Rams in base packages this season, but will cede more snaps to backup Nick Fairley than he did to ex-backup Kendall Langford, who played 494 snaps last season, before signing in Indianapolis this off-season. Fairley will technically replace Langford, but he also represents a large upgrade and someone capable of playing a much bigger role, especially on passing downs.

Fairley has been a frustrating player during his 4 year career. He went 13th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, but it’s still not clear how good of a player he is. It’s clear how good he can be, but he’s been so inconsistent. Fairley only played 236 snaps as a rookie, largely because of injuries, but he still played well and, in 2012, he was even better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle on just 511 snaps. Fairley looked primed for a breakout year in 2013, but weight problems caused him to only grade out slightly above average on 693 snaps. As a result, the Lions didn’t pick up his option for 2015, making 2014 his contract year, and briefly benched him for CJ Mosley last off-season.

That seemed to wake him up as he played very well to start the season, but he missed 8 games with injuries. He still graded out 18th among defensive tackles on just 297 snaps and he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle through 7 weeks before the injury. He’s shown top defensive tackle talent and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s inconsistent, he’s had discipline problems dating back to his collegiate days, and he’s missed 18 games with injuries in 4 years in the league. However, the one-year prove it deal (worth 5 million) the Rams signed him to this off-season has the best chance to get his elite upside out of him because it’ll keep him motivated. He’ll work in rotation with Brockers and can be a dominant player on 500-600 snaps this season. It’s an absolutely loaded defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Rams also have an outside linebacker who can rush the passer off the edge if needed. It probably won’t be needed behind Quinn, Long, and Hayes, but it’s nice to have Akeem Ayers’ versatility. Besides, Ayers, who signed for just 6 million over 2 years this off-season, is a fantastic run stopper in base packages. He’s graded out above average as a run stopper in all 4 seasons of his career, at both 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebacker, including 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run in 2013. In addition to being able to rush the passer decently in sub packages, he can also cover decently in sub packages, but Ayers probably won’t be doing much of that this season either.

James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree will be the two every down linebackers, with Ayers playing situationally, serving as a significant upgrade on JoLonn Dunbar, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible last season on just 432 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. Unfortunately, Laurinaitis and Ogletree weren’t much better as they also graded out below average last season. This is nothing new for them as Ogletree has graded out below average in each of his 2 seasons in the league, since the Rams drafted him in the 1st round in 2013. Laurinaitis, meanwhile, has graded out below average in 3 straight seasons since signing a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension. The Rams’ linebackers are not nearly as good as their defensive linemen.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Another big reason why the Rams had an improved defense last season is because they had an improved secondary, thanks to some breakout years from young players. That includes both of their safeties, TJ McDonald and Rodney McLeod, who both graded out above average last season and started all 16 games each. McDonald and McLeod also complement each other well. The 6-2 219 pound McDonald graded out above against the run, but below average in coverage and played with 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 65.8% of snaps, 7th most in the NFL among safeties. Meanwhile, the 5-11 183 McLeod graded out above average in coverage, but below average against the run, and played just 6.3% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, the lowest percentage in the NFL among safeties.

It’s important to remember that both are still one year wonders. McDonald was Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 as a 3rd round rookie, while missing 6 games with injury. McLeod also struggled in 2013, making all 16 starts, but grading out 75th out of 86 eligible safeties in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career (he played 3 snaps as a rookie). Both players seem to have bright futures, but this is important to remember.

At cornerback, the breakout star was 6th round rookie EJ Gaines, who, despite his draft status, was able to take advantage of some injuries and lead Ram cornerbacks with 964 snaps played, making all 15 starts before missing week 17 with injury. The rookie was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked cornerback and showed the ability to play both outside and inside on the slot. Like McDonald and McLeod, he’s a one-year wonder. That trio might not all match their 2014 season in 2015, but they’re all young so it’s possible one of them is even better next season.

The Rams’ other two cornerbacks, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, are also young, as both come from the 2012 class (2nd and 3rd round respectively), which means both are heading into their contract years right now. Jenkins has made 43 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but has graded out below average in all 3 seasons. However, he’s been better since a rough rookie year and has only graded out slightly below average over the past 2 seasons. Johnson, meanwhile, flashed as a rookie, grading out above average on 366 snaps, but has also graded out slightly below average over the past 2 seasons as he’s started taking on a bigger role. He also missed 7 games with injury to start last season, which is how Gaines was able to get his chance. Both are decent young cornerbacks, but not much else. It’s a solid, but unspectacular secondary.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Rams have been frustrating close to breaking through over the past few years. This could be their breakout year, but it also could be another disappointing year. Nick Foles represents an upgrade on Shaun Hill and Austin Davis, but he doesn’t really have much of any offensive supporting cast. They should be better this season offensively and their defense has a good chance to be strong again, but them being a top-5 unit again largely relies on a bunch of young, unproven players to match or improve upon career best year’s, including Aaron Donald, who played otherworldly last season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Rams after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in NFC West

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